Board Games and bell hooks: The Women Designing Mansions of Madness (2nd ed.)

In many ways, we live in the golden age of nerd-dom. Superheroes rule the box office. Video games are cool. And the board games are excellent.

I may be biased. As a competitive person who likes face-to-face interaction, it’s hard to beat a long afternoon of complex rules and stratagems (think Scythe). Alternatively, the co-op style of Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition encourages world- and character-building in the face of immense and shadowy disaster, an equally satisfying way to pass the time. In fact, the popular game (a mix of computer app and old-fashioned board game) specifically builds on the it-lurks-on-the-borders creepiness of Lovecraft himself. Lovecraft. A man with a thoroughly disgusting worldview. Unlike the designers of Mansions of Madness, three of whom are women specifically dedicated to celebrating diversity within the game: Nikki Valens, Kara Centell-Dunk, and Grace Holdinghaus (interviewed at Geek & Sundry here).

In this column, I often look at historical women who forged a place for themselves in men’s circles. But it is equally important to consider the women who are currently breaking ground in spheres often dominated by men. As board gaming reaches its own critical moment, examined in journals such as Analog Game Studies, I want to examine the influence of women on the narratives and texts embedded in these games. Because with games such as Mansions of Madness, we really are dealing with interactive stories and art. And how we tell those stories is impacted by who tells them—especially since the who always implicates the players themselves who help to generate the narrative.

Much like Dungeons & Dragons or other role-playing games, Mansions of Madness emphasizes not only physical ability but intelligence and charisma, as your characters solve pressing and dangerous missions. Though monster-slaying is often involved, it is usually the scholarly and empathetic acts of clue-gathering and conversing with NPCs that prove the answer to winning (and winning itself is rarer than you might think). This framework, in and of itself, is conducive to a reexamination of patriarchal values. As bell hooks has compellingly argued in her “Understanding Patriarchy,” patriarchy is a system that prioritizes dominance over vulnerability and intimacy, thus harming all engaged members. Ursula Le Guin’s carrier-bag theory of fiction posits something similar: the emphasis on narratives of masculine conquest exclude divergent stories. Mansions, with its emphasis on team-bonding and narrative (rather than winning) proves a conducive environment for women to tell stories that may challenge traditional expectations.

In the Geek & Sundry interview, Holdinghaus argues that the concrete stories of Mansions give her “more room to explore diversity than in a less thematic, abstract game.” Based on my recent play-through of the DLC What Lies Within (scenario designed by Centell-Dunk), I would argue this includes a diversity of game-play as well as identity. This scenario, particularly, de-emphasizes monster-fights to focus on the mystery surrounding a murder victim with a missing arm. As the story unfolds, investigators learn of the relationship between the victim and his parents and they encounter a mansion in different stages of decay. At the heart of this story, then, are familial relations and domestic spheres, and it is often the least-expected actions that yield the key to solving the mystery. The entire scenario encourages players to step carefully, examine their environs thoroughly, and empathize with the murdered man. To not do so could spell certain doom. It is a scenario, then, that encourages a less patriarchal game-play style of monster-hacking and quick solutions.

I played Sister Mary, a nun intent on seeking out and destroying evil, and fellow players picked Silas Marsh, a burly sailor, Charlie Kane, a smooth-talking politician, and Agnes Baker, a waitress with a predisposition towards magic. Two of us played characters that matched our own gender identities; two did not. The game encourages players to approach the scenarios from a wide range of perspectives, especially since pre-fabricated characters encourage players to think outside the box a bit more than self-generated characters may do (depending on player). Though all of these provided characters are not without problems, Centell-Dunk’s scenario allows for a thoughtful background against which their stories play out.

In sum, narrative-driven board games like Mansions of Madness provide forums for players—as characters—to expand on the story alongside the designers themselves, and it is important that these forums be inclusive and thoughtful so that the stories follow suit. The women working on Mansion of Madness are acutely aware of their own responsibility in that arena.